Accrochage

Towards photo-reportage (1843-1933)

From October 16th, 2007 to January 06th, 2008
Peter Henry Emerson
In a Sail Loft, en 1890
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
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Charles Nègre-Trois ramoneurs au repos, quai Bourbon
Charles Nègre
Trois ramoneurs au repos quai Bourbon, vers 1856
Musée d'Orsay
Acquis par les Musées nationaux, 1981
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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This set of some sixty photographs of the fisherman of the Firth of Forth in the north of Scotland, taken in 1843 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, provided a true photo-reportage, before the term was invented. The photographers were planning to publish them, but never achieved this aim.
In France, Charles Nègre was the first person, from 1851 onwards, to photograph people he came across in the streets – chimney sweeps, rag pickers, industrial and agricultural workers, and organ grinders. He thus continued a colourful, realist tradition already well-established in painting, drawing and engraving, from the time of Jacques Callot. In 1857, Napoleon III commissioned Nègre to produce a reportage on life inside the Hospice of Vincennes which the emperor had set up for injured construction workers.

Roger Fenton -Landing Place, Railway stores, Balaklava (Aire d'accostage et gare de triage, Balaklava)
Roger Fenton, Thomas Agnew and Sons, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co, Williams and Co, Félix-Jacques Moulin
Landing Place, Railway Stores, Balaklava, en 1856
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Sophie Crépy
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With the advent of photography, war ceased to be the great heroic subject in painting which it had been up to the Romantic era. So, in 1855, at the request of Agnew, the publisher and art dealer, Roger Fenton photographed the British army's preparations for the Crimean war.
Here, the ordinary soldiers are incidental figures. By contrast, the symbolic Valley of the Shadow of Death c, does concentrate on the multitude of unknown heroes who died for their country.

Thomas Annan-Glasgow : Close n°61 Saltmarket
Thomas Annan
Close, N° 61 Saltmarket, entre 1868 et 1871
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
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Similarly Edouard Baldus, working for the Ministry of the Interior, made a dramatic impact with his photographs of the damage caused by the Rhône floods of May 1856, by only portraying the sad fate of those made homeless.In fact, for technical reasons he had to choose between figure and background, each of which required a different exposure time, and so people could not be featured in the middle of ruins. Some ten years later, the Scot Thomas Annan was photographing the slums east Glasgow using the more rapid technique of wet collodion glass negatives. Thus he was able to photograph these areas, with their inhabitants, before they were cleaned up.

Désiré Charnay -La reine Mohély
Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay
La Reine de Mohély, en 1863
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
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The 19th century, with the creation of ethnographical societies, saw an increase in portraits of men and women of all "races". They were reproduced from wood cuts for magazines, or displayed in the Universal Exhibitions. Some of the photographs were generous in their depiction of these people who, through the prejudices of the time, were considered inferior. This approach was taken by sub-lieutenant Paul-Emile Miot who photographed the Mic-Mac Indians in Newfoundland, and by the explorer Désiré Charnay who chose to photograph the Hovas and Malgaches tribes in Madagascar.

Lewis Hine-Enfants vendant des journaux à New-York
Lewis Hine
Enfants vendant des journaux à New-York (détail), vers 1910
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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Lewis Hine was one of the reformers in America who, at the end of the 19th century decided to take up the struggle against the abuses seen in capitalist society. These reformers used the very means that capitalism had made available: photography, the press and advertising.
For the l'Ethical Culture School of New York, Hine completed his first reportage on the emigrants arriving at Ellis Island, at a time when efforts were being made to reduce immigration. One of his major campaigns was waged against child labour through the Child Labor Committee. The captions of the photographs, detailing the locations and the ages of the subjects, succeeded in making these accounts indisputable.
Similarly, it was an American charity organisation, the Jewish Joint distribution Committee , which in 1919 commissioned a distressing reportage on the living conditions in Poland of Jewish communities who were fleeing the pogroms.

Félix Thiollier -Grapilleurs au couchant près de Saint-Etienne
Félix Thiollier
Paysage de mine, Saint-Etienne, entre 1895 et 1910
Musée d'Orsay
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
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Some photographers concentrated on privately-commissioned reportage: Félix Thiollier, born into the affluent middle class, took thousands of very accomplished photographs for his own pleasure, many of which documented the mines of Saint-Etienne.
Whereas photography was only one aspect of Thiollier's life - he was also a great lover of art and archaeology - Peter Henry Emerson devoted his whole life to photography. Using his considerable technical expertise, he published, in book form, photographs taken in collaboration with the painter and naturalist Thomas Goodall. Following the example of Jean-François Millet, he set out to champion the cause of the inhabitants of the fens of Norfolk, and the sailors of East Anglia, with whom he lived and worked at the end of the 1880s.

Alfred Stieglitz encouraged Paul Strand, one of his followers, to pursue researches into perfecting technique and form. In 1916-1917, in the final two editions of the magazine Camera Work Strand published close-up pictures of destitute New Yorkers, taken with a detective camera. After this, he became increasingly involved with portraying simple, hard-working societies - peasants in Mexico, Italy and France – and went on to produce his series of portraits blending pictorial research and human kindness.

Peter Henry Emerson -Poling the Marsh Hay
Peter Henry Emerson, Thomas F. Goodall, Valentine & Sons, Marston Sampson Low
Poling the Marsh Hay, en 1886
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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The purpose of these reportages is not the only issue. There is also the question of how much ingenuity is there, and how much is staged. In Charles Nègre's work this is obvious, and it is probable, if not certain, that Thiollier and Emerson also coached their subjects to "re-enact" their most typical gestures.
Hine himself composed his portraits of the Ellis Island immigrants, Paul Strand was to do the same with the Mexican peasants, while Bill Brandt would go as far as to ask friends to pose in order to complete his pictures of mine-workers. In the end, by taking certain liberties with the "real", by dramatising it, photographers, then as now, have been able to express this reality more comprehensively.